The Metropolitan Opera – Otto Schenk’s production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser – Johan Botha, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Peter Mattei, Michelle DeYoung & Günther Groissböck; conducted by James Levine

Tannhäuser – Grosse Romantische Oper in three Acts to a libretto by the composer [Paris version; sung in German with English Met Titles by Sonya Haddad]

Venus – Michelle DeYoung
Heinrich Tannhäuser – Johan Botha
A Young Shepherd – Ying Fang
Herrmann, Landgraf of Thuringia – Günther Groissböck
Walther von der Vogelweide – Noah Baetge
Biterolf – Ryan McKinny
Wolfram von Eschenbach – Peter Mattei
Heinrich der Schreiber – Adam Klein
Reinmar von Zweter – Ricardo Lugo
Elisabeth – Eva-Maria Westbroek
Pages – Daniel Katzman, Connor Tsui, Michael Graham, Gabriel Nichols, Ruby Gilmore, Emma Kramer, Andre Gulick & Brandon Harnett
Three Graces – Marybeth Hansohn, Ana Luiza Luizi & Sarah Weber Gallo

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus

Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera
James Levine

Otto Schenk – Production
Günther Schneider-Siemssen – Set Designer
Patricia Zipprodt – Costume Designer
Gil Wechsler – Lighting Designer
Norbert Vesak – Choreography
Stephen Pickover – Stage Director

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 8 October, 2015
Venue: The Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, New York City

Otto Schenk's production of Wagner's Tannhäuser (The Metropolitan Opera, New York)Photograph: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan OperaOtto Schenk’s productions are an endangered species, with eleven of his sixteen for the Met, including six Wagner operas, no longer in the company’s active repertory. Tannhäuser, premiered in 1977 and last performed here in 2004, is the oldest of the five that remain – the others are Arabella, Elektra, Rusalka and Don Pasquale – and is still robust, its naturalistic beauty shining through as James Levine drew impassioned singing and playing from an outstanding cast and a great Orchestra and Chorus. This was the first in a seven-performance run, the last of which will be transmitted live to cinemas on October 31.

Levine’s reading of the stirring Overture and ‘Venusberg Music’ was more satisfying than Norbert Vesak’s choreography, in which a large corps de ballet tried altogether too hard to enjoy the bacchanal, repeatedly embracing, spinning, lifting and throwing one another about. Once the dancers had departed, Johan Botha and Michelle DeYoung sang with power and dramatic intensity as Tannhäuser praises Venus but then incurs her condemnation when he asks her to allow him to return to the mortal world. DeYoung, who alone among the principals had previously sung in this production, gave a larger-than-life portrayal of the love goddess characterized by both physical and vocal strength and beauty.

Otto Schenk's production of Wagner's Tannhäuser (The Metropolitan Opera, New York)Photograph: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan OperaGil Wechsler’s effective lighting and Günther Schneider-Siemssen’s imaginative set design combined to transform the Venusberg grotto into the attractive landscape of a valley near the Wartburg castle where a young shepherd is playing a pipe. In one of the evening’s highlights, soprano Ying Fang brought crystalline purity to the shepherd’s tune, singing to a beautiful English horn accompaniment. The Pilgrims’ Chorus, its pervasive theme first heard on horns and clarinets in the opening bars of the Overture, was touchingly sung by the chorus of penitents (and would later be reprised by the returning pilgrims and yet again when the ensemble acknowledges Tannhäuser’s salvation just before the final curtain falls).

The dramatic crux of the opera is the song contest in the Wartburg in Act Two, preceded by the ‘Entry of the Guests’, for which Schneider-Siemssen’s set, Patricia Zipprodt’s costumes, and Stephen Pickover’s stage directions create a visual spectacle to match the splendor of Wagner’s music. Pickover sustains visual interest during the competition, in which Wolfram and Tannhäuser clash over the meaning of love, and its calamitous aftermath. The image of Tannhäuser isolated on one side of the stage as Elisabeth stands between him and the angry nobles is quite effective.

Otto Schenk's production of Wagner's Tannhäuser (The Metropolitan Opera, New York)Photograph: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan OperaBotha was an indefatigable Tannhäuser, his vocal strength and physical energy in the demanding role enduring right through to his gripping account of the knight’s disastrous pilgrimage to Rome. Peter Mattei was a superb Wolfram, greeting Tannhäuser in Act One, later singing of the purity of love, and in the final Act gloriously apostrophizing the evening star in ‘O du, mein holder Abendstern’. Mattei has firmly established himself as one of the finest operatic baritones, adding this marvelous role to his recent Met triumphs as Don Giovanni, Count Almaviva, Eugene Onegin and Amfortas. Ryan McKinney, Noah Baetge, Adam Klein and Ricardo Lugo sang well as the other minstrels, and Günther Groissböck brought a rich bass voice and elegant bearing to the role of Landgraf Herrmann.

Eva-Maria Westbroek gave a multifaceted portrayal of Elisabeth, ushering in Act Two with her ardently sung ‘Dich, teure Halle’, and later intervening powerfully to protect Tannhäuser from those outraged and allowing him to seek an acquittal from the Pope. She was most effective vocally in Elisabeth’s well-focused prayer to the Virgin Mary after realizing that the knight was not among those pardoned.

As a consequence of the physical demands imposed by the opera’s more than three hours of music, James Levine has withdrawn from conducting the upcoming Met production of Berg’s Lulu, for which rehearsals overlap the Tannhäuser run, but he seemed fully energized right through the performance. More than anything else, it was his affinity for this music and his brilliant leadership that made for a truly memorable first-night.

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